NTSB / Reuters

This is why Americans can’t have nice trains

Amtrak’s systemic failures stem from its impossible mandate

May 15, 2015 12:45PM ET

The remarkable thing about Tuesday night’s Amtrak crash isn’t that these things happen. It’s that they don’t happen more often.

When Amtrak 188 derailed in northern Philadelphia, about 240 people were aboard. Eight died, and more than 200 were injured. It was the worst crash on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most heavily traveled segment, since 1987. It was also the most gruesome of several fatal train crashes this year from New York to California.

By point of comparison, 269 people were killed in car accidents in the past year in New York City alone. Overall, passengers are 17 times as likely to die in a car as on a train. But these statistics are cold comfort after a tragedy. Information from the train’s black box showed that it was traveling at 106 miles per hour just before the crash. The speed limit on the curve where it derailed, one of the sharpest in the Northeast Corridor, is 50 mph. Even though the engineer applied the train’s emergency brakes just before the crash, it seems that the direct cause of this crash was pure carelessness.

It goes without saying that the onus for the derailment falls on the engineer, who should not have been speeding. At the same time, crashes like these would be far less likely if Amtrak were funded properly, had better equipment and weren’t treated like the red-headed stepchild of American transportation.

Built to fail

From the beginning, Amtrak was set up to fail. For most of U.S. history, passenger rail had been provided by private companies. Then in 1970, Richard Nixon’s administration consolidated the various passenger train operators into a single national rail service to adapt to falling ridership. Either as an act of sabotage or short-sightedness, Amtrak was set up as a for-profit company receiving government subsidies rather than as a fully integrated part of the national transit infrastructure, and nobody expected Nixon’s measure to last for more than a few years. According to a recent profile of Amtrak in National Journal, “the tension between Amtrak's for-profit mandate and money-losing reality has always dogged it. In 1997, Congress mandated that Amtrak become self-sufficient by 2002 or get liquidated. It didn’t, and it wasn’t.”

That’s not to say Amtrak isn’t always profitable. Some of its routes are. In particular, the Northeast Corridor, from Washington, D.C., to Boston, is indispensable. The line had a record 11.6 million passengers in 2014 and consistently pulls in profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The New York–D.C. portion of that route carries more than 70 percent of all commercial passenger traffic between the cities.

Americans may sigh with jealousy when they hear about trains that go from Madrid to Barcelona in three hours, but those trains cost 9 billion euros to build.

However, thanks to the mandate that established Amtrak, those profits must be redistributed to subsidize long-distance, low-ridership lines in the rest of the country, leaving Northeastern passengers with higher fares and worse equipment than they need and deserve.

The system as a whole, meanwhile, has never turned a profit, and this fact has led conservative politicians, from rural lawmakers whose constituents don’t use trains to self-styled very serious budget hawks, to say that the system shouldn’t get any more government money.

This attitude demonstrates the folly that was baked into Amtrak from the very beginning: expecting a crucial transportation service to be profitable without significant government subsidies. There are a few examples around the world of profitable large-scale passenger rail systems. Japan’s national railways, which were privatized in 1987, are the most famous. But most developed nations provide national funding to make their rail systems work. Americans may sigh with jealousy when they hear about trains that go from Madrid to Barcelona in three hours, but those trains cost 9 billion euros to build, to say nothing of operating expenses. Good transportation doesn’t come cheap. 

Who pays?

Demanding that Amtrak do better financially or lose its funding demonstrates isn’t just unrealistic; it’s hypocritical. We don’t expect any other form of transportation to be profitable without government subsidies. Take roads: Theoretically, drivers pay for roads through the gas tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon plus whatever each state decides to charge. But whether it’s new highways, routine maintenance or externalized costs such as traffic and air pollution, there’s overwhelming proof that user fees do not come close to paying for roads.

In his book “20th Century Sprawl,” urban planner Owen Gutfreund explains that road builders and carmakers spent much of the 1900s advocating for policies that treated roads as a public good, shifting the burden of paying for them from drivers and to society at large. Anxious to gain a monopoly on intercity transit, corporate interests fought hard to make sure driving was the only mode of travel treated as a public trust. That is the legacy we still have. A new report, “Who Pays for Roads?” estimates that the cumulative subsidy to highways has totaled $600 billion since 1947. Because the gas tax is not indexed to inflation, its purchasing power has dropped, and user fees now pay for about half of highway spending. If the U.S. highway system were pared down to the point that all its costs were covered by user fees, the country’s mobility — and economy — would come to a crashing halt.

And yet this is the balance Amtrak is expected to strike. One day after the crash in Philadelphia, Congress voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by $250 million, almost one-fifth of what it received this year. This would come despite rising Amtrak ridership nationwide and a massive backlog of maintenance and repairs.

One such piece of maintenance, as a number of reports have already noted, could have saved Amtrak 188. Positive train control is a technology that creates a real-time communication network responding to where trains are, where they’re going and what they should be doing. Automatically slowing down trains that enter sharp curves at 100 miles per hour is the sort of thing positive train control is designed to do, and in 2008 Congress required rail providers nationwide to implement it by the end of 2015. It’s not going to happen, because Congress has refused to provide the money.

The chances that Congress will fully defund Amtrak are minuscule, but for the sake of argument, it’s a scenario worth considering, because we know what it would look like. When transit systems are neglected and maintenance isn’t performed, fewer people ride. When fewer people ride, less revenue is generated, which means less money for maintenance, in a downward spiral. One need not directly blame Congress for Tuesday’s crash to understand that Amtrak must be funded, reformed, repaired and, above all, treated as a public investment, not a quasi-private business doubling as a national joke. For such problems, the only way out is through. 

Amtrak ridership has increased...

... while federal funding for Amtrak has decreased in the last few years

Note: The proposed budget number for 2016 is based on a transportation spending bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday May 13, 2015.
Source: Amtrak, Federal Railroad Administration, Senate Committee Report/Library of Congress, The Wall Street Journal.

Jordan Fraade is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His writing on urban policy issues has been featured by Next City, Gothamist, The Baffler and CityLab.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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